VPSLand – Windows/Linux VPS Hosting Review.

I run a number of hobby sites – like this one. But unlike this one, many of my older hobby sites run on Windows. I’ve been using WebSecureStores (a shared host) and am fairly happy with them – but they seem to have stopped all activity on the feature enhancement front – going even so far as not to update their websites in the last year or two or add support for the .NET Framework 3.0 or 3.5. These are big no-no’s and make we wonder, “Is this company still alive? Will my servers suddenly disappear one day?” So I’ve been looking for a new home. Before WebSecureStores I used WebStrikeSolutions – and they were awesome – but I left them because they didn’t include MSSQL in their default packages – and still don’t. Most recently I tried DiscountASP.NET where I am still hosting FreeWargamer – but they also don’t offer MSSQL without an additional cost ($10/mo. per database – if it was just $10/mo, I’d be fine – but I have several smaller databases, and no I don’t want to combine them all into one big database).

Before leaving Collages.net I was working a lot with different virtualization technologies – and I love them – and believe they are the way of the future. So I researched various VPS providers over at WebHostingTalk. I finally decided on VPSLand, despite some bad reviews, because of their AMAZING prices. On 7/26/08 I purchased a Windows-EZ Value or Busines plan from them (I don’t recall which). In any case, at the minimum I received 1280 MB RAM 400 GB Bandwidth, and so on – running Windows Server 2003 64-bit. AWESOME!

Unfortunately, I had not had previous experience with Parallels/SWSoft’s Virtuozzo and have since decided I absolutely hate it. I had a number of issues over a period of a few weeks, but knew a few where Virtuozzo’s fault and the rest I decided to give VPSLand the benefit of the doubt on. For those who aren’t familiar with Virtuozzo, it works differently from most virtualization technologies. Rather than completely isolating the virtual OS instance it shares the instance across all slices. The practical result of this is that you can’t make modifications to the Windows core (e.g. apply Windows Updates). Call this the network engineer in me – but when I get a VPS I want full control to upgrade/patch/install/replace however I see fit.

Next step – research alternative VPS solutions. It seems a majority of VPS providers utilize either Virtuozzo or its open source companion, so it took me a while to find ones supporting Citrix XenServer, Microsoft Hyper-V, or VMWare’s ESX. In the end I decided to stay with VPSLand and use their Xen VPS.

Double the price. I purchased one of VPSLand’s WindowsXL-1024 Xen VPS plans. It included 1024 MB of RAM and 1000 GB bandwidth. Not bad, certainly a step up – though I would have taken less bandwidth and less HD space in exchange for a lower price. No matter, I’m now paying $79.99/mo. Well, for over double the price I expect some good service and a good system. Now lets follow the timeline:

  • Sept. 3rd, 2008 – Order places for Xen VPS around 3 P.M. EST.
  • Sept. 4th, 2008 – Account information received around 7:50 P.M. EST.
  • Sept. 4th, 2008 – At 10:22 P.M. EST I submit a ticket reporting that while I can connect to the VPS I cannot ping out to any remote server (e.g. Google, Yahoo).
  • Sept. 5th, 2008 – At 4:27 A.M. EST I receive a ticket reporting that this issue has been resolved. The support tech. informs me not to apply Windows Updates, that they take care of this on their VPS.
  • Sept. 5th, 2008 – At 11:09 A.M. EST I send a response asking why I can’t make Windows Updates since this is a Xen VPS not a Virtuozzo VPS. Also asking for an explanation on what caused the technical issue with my VPS.
  • Sept. 6th, 2008 – At 9:52 A.M. EST I receive a response from a different technician that yes, the first technician was incorrect and I can install patches and then a cryptic answer to my question about the cause/resolution of the issue in the first place (something about restarting a network service on my VPS – strange since I rebooted the entire server multiple times).
  • Sept. 6th, 2008 – At 12:35 P.M. EST I submit a new ticket. I’ve just noticed that my VPS is down – entirely. No ability to visit the sites, no ability to RDC into the server. No ability to access the web based control panel. This is a complete service outage.
  • Sept. 6th, 2008 – At 2:41 P.M. EST I receive a response to my ticket – over two hours later. They are “escalating” my ticket to the “reboot queue.” Two hours and they are just now recycling the server?
  • Sept. 6th, 2008 – At 3:47 P.M. EST I write again on the same ticket, “I am still down. The server came up briefly according to a pinging service but went back down again shortly thereafter. Please give me a status update.”
  • Sept. 6th, 2008 – At 11:10 P.M. EST I wrote again on the same ticket, “I would love to get an occasional update – say once every two hours or so to let me know what is happening. Right now it kind of feels like you guys just gave up on fixing my VPS. This has been a horrible starting experience with VPSLand. Please inform me of the status – I am still down – nearly twelve hours after initially reporting this outage. How can I even place a minor website on a server that is going to be this unstable? And where support does not respond?”
  • Sept. 7th, 2008 – At 3:37 P.M. EST as I write this post my VPS is still down, I have received no further communication from VPSLand and it has been well over 24 hours since my VPS went down.
  • UPDATE: Sept. 7th, 2008 – I submit a new ticket in a desperate attempt for attention. Title is, “SERVER DOWN FOR 24+ HOURS!”
  • UPDATE: Sept. 7th, 2008 – At 9:23 P.M. EST receive a response to my original ticket that this issue is being escalated to their senior admins (after well-over 24 hours straight downtime) and that they will give me status updates.
  • UPDATE: Sept. 8th, 2008 – At 12:01 A.M. EST receive a note informing me VPS has been restored, also that they are giving me a credit for one month free service and apologize for the delay. Issue report is a failed drive (this is why one uses RAID – at least 1, perhaps 5 or 6).

At this juncture I feel the neglect is simply insane. “VPSLAND.com’s Virtual Private Servers are perfect for Businesses or Individuals looking for an affordable dedicated server alternative with full Root/Administrator privileges.” I’m running hobby sites folks – and this isn’t working for me?

So here are my thoughts at this juncture:

  1. Talk to Us. People are very understanding when they know that there is a problem and that a company is working to resolve this problem. My problem is I don’t know if anyone is even working on this problem. Sure, the ticket is open – but is anyone home?
  2. Better SLA. I should have looked at their SLA more closely. While they offer a 99.9% uptime guarantee their SLA more carefully defines this. If you have less than 99.9% in a single month they compensate at 100% if it is 89.9% or below – that’s an astonishing 72+/- hours in a single month (yes, that was the sound of my jaw hitting the floor). The SLA should look like: Below 98% 100% credit plus a 100% refund (e.g. you pay me).
  3. How Ya Gonna Change? Why does it take hours to get a reply to a ticket? Why is there no phone number to call in emergencies? Do you need to hire more techs.? Do so. Jump the prices to do so? Okay. But this is unbelievable. Automatic migrations? Manual migrations? A must!

Maybe something at this point will change…and if it does I will inform you. But at this juncture – my personal opinion is – don’t ever EVER ever utilize VPSLand for anything (yah, grandma, not even your hobby site on knitting!).

Anyone out there have a good Windows VPS service (not using Virtuozzo) that wants a new client? I’m good PR if you treat me well (and bad if you don’t).

P.S. I’m softer on companies that haven’t been in business for a long time (e.g. startups). I know the difficulties experienced, but VPSLand or its antecedent have been running since 1994.

I Mint my Own Money!

Mint Logo
Image via Wikipedia

[Update: Since Intuit acquired Mint the rate of innovation seems to have decreased significantly…I still use it occasionally, but not nearly as much as in the past. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a totally pleasing replacement for Mint…I use YNAB to do things right now.]

Haha. Got ya! Not that kind of mint. I use the web 2.0 application Mint to manage my finances – and you should too. This is the sort of service I have been hoping for for years! What is it? So glad you asked…

Mint is a website that allows you to centralize your financial management (and its free). Once you sign up you enter your login information for your various banks, credit cards, investments, etc. Mint does not permanently maintain this information – rather they establish a read only connection to your financial institutions and then throw away the keys (login information). This allows them to pull the latest information from your accounts – but they can’t make deposits or withdrawals nor do they even have the ability to find our your username/password since they throw it away. So, it’s a fairly safe system1It is worth noting that while many people are afraid of putting their banking information online, in my opinion we regularly engage in much more risky behavior. For example, handing that credit card over to a waiter who walks off with it. Talking about financial details over phone lines – which are unencrypted. Receiving financial information through the postal mail – unencrypted. Any site worth its salt (including Mint) uses encryption to protect your information – this is much more than can be said for many traditional technologies..

Once you add your accounts Mint offers a number of neat features including:

  • Creating graphs and charts of your income and expenses. Allowing you to drill down into the areas where you are spending the most money and find unexpected drains on your financial resources.
  • Monitor spending from month to month and automatically create budgets (or create one manually) that reflect your average spending.
  • Receive notifications when bills are coming due, when new deposits are made to your account, or when rates on an account change.

Mint is a must have. It will make your life easier and help you manage your finances more wisely – I know it has helped me!

Verizon FiOS.

Growing up I lived in Westerlo New York. No, its not a big town. Yes, that’s the reason you’ve never heard of it. In any case, its way out in the middle of nowhere and to this day large portions of the town can only access the internet via 56k…err, make that 28.8k. As a teenager I spent so many hours waiting for a page to load – I learned to read a book at the same time I was surfing the web (a habit that stays with me to this day).

Actiontec MI424WR wireless router
Image via Wikipedia

When I moved to Pennsylvania I experienced what high speed internet was on Philadelphia Biblical University’s campus. Granted, the speeds weren’t that amazing – but since I worked oftentimes over winter and summer breaks when most of the students were away things cracked along at amazingly fast speeds. The bonded T1’s providing 3 Mbps of internet connectivity.

For a while I moved back to dial-up, until I was hired by Collages.net Inc. Then I moved up to DSL – and through several different providers including Verizon and Speakeasy. This continued until Charity and I bought our current home – and they had just begun FiOS layouts. So we had the FiOS run.

What exactly is FiOS? I’m glad you asked. Lets take a minute to talk about the different types of connectivity one can have:

  • Dial-Up – Uses traditional copper lines and communicates via analog signals. At the sender’s end the modem translates everything into analog and then it must be converted back into digital on the receiving. Okay, that’s not the big problem – the real problem is that dial-up operates at 56kbps at its fastest – and that’s slow.
  • Cable Modem – Operates over the same lines that the cable video network runs over. Much bigger pipes but everyone in a local area shares the same pipe. If you are the only person or one of a small number using cable, things go fast – but start to build up a lot of users at a local node and internet speeds will begin to deteriorate. Common speeds are around 1-8 Mbps (~1000-8000 Kbps).
  • DSL – Runs over traditional phone lines but at much higher speeds than dial-up yet usually at lower speeds than cable’s theoretical maximums. Oftentimes speeds where in the range of 1-2 Mbps.
  • FiOS – Uses dedicated fiber run to the individual home, providing exceptional speeds as high as 20-40 Mbps currently (~20,000-40,000 Kbps) and starting at 5 Mbps!

As you can begin to see from the above breakdown of service types (yes, I ignored satellite, ISDN, etc.) – FiOS kicks butt for two reasons. First, it has a dedicated line and second its speed is excellent. Not to say that cable can’t catch up, but it will require significant infrastructure upgrades by the cable providers.

So, anyways, I’ve really enjoyed FiOS and have very few complaints. But, to be fair, I’ll list the issues I’ve encountered with FiOS:

  • The technicians who installed my FiOS where telecommunications guys and didn’t really understand how FiOS or the internet in general worked. Verizon has been cross-training these guys, but they are still relative newbies. Perhaps they are better now with two years of experience under their belts.
  • Verizon at one point canceled my line due to a billing mistake on their end. Their network did not recognize I had been successfully connected and yet I had internet access, so out of the blue I lost internet connectivity when they decided one day to terminate my connection. They rectified this within 3-5 days.
  • Verizon is horrific if you have to call them. Granted, I barely ever have to call for technical support – but if you do, be ready for your patience to be tried. The worst part is the automated phone system. By the time you reach a technician you are ready to strangle someone. The technician’s themselves aren’t bad, though sometimes lack the ability to effectively troubleshoot the issue (I’m a network guy). The worst though is after dialing through their automated system and waiting on hold for 10-15 minutes you receive this message, “We are sorry, all lines are busy. Please call back later.” What?!?!
  • They only warranty their routers for a year. If your router dies after that period expect to either pay them a hefty fee (and it will die) or go to Best Buy/Circuit City and pick up a new unit (unfortunately, you’ll need to be a geek to figure out how to configure the router).

Okay, I know those sound like a lot of negatives…But its the best experience I’ve had thus far from an ISP. I’m pleased with the speeds and with the technology. If Verizon could work on the customer service aspect they’d have one killer service.